The ethics of millennial employees
Hege Øvrebø reaches beyond generational stereotypes to reveal a much more nuanced picture of the working world’s fastest-growing age group.
Lazy, narcissistic, coddled and indifferent are just some of the accusations aimed at Generation Y employees — otherwise known as millennials and generally defined as people born between 1982 and 2004. But new research from the School of Management at Victoria University of Wellington reveals a much more nuanced picture of the working world’s fastest-growing age group and the values that drive them.
Understanding what motivates these future managers and CEOs is important for any organisation, especially as generational stereotypes abound in many workplaces and, combined with each group’s belief their values are the ‘right ones’, often cause conflicts.
“In the wake of a recent focus on ethics in the workplace – including the #MeToo movement – an increased focus on sustainability, and individualisation in society that has distanced younger generations, it is even more important to understand these differing perspectives,” says Hege Øvrebø, whose Master’s thesis focused on the topic.
The research explored the expectations and values young millennials (born 1992–1999) prioritise when considering ethics in New Zealand workplaces and found three distinct groups: the Achiever, the Ethical Employee and the Public Conservationist.
They each have a specific approach to workplace ethics, but also share some important perspectives, including “not seeing money as the main reason to work, but assuming money always comes with a job”.
“Growing up and being socialised in an era where consumer choice has a large influence on products and prices, it’s not surprising young millennials also want to have a say and be listened to when it comes to innovative ideas at work,” says Øvrebø.
“There is also a significant consensus across the entire Generation Y that all employees should be treated decently and not made to feel vulnerable at work.”
Among the three groups identified, the Achiever aims to be the best at what they do and therefore works hard and expects opportunities to excel and develop within the organisation.
However, in order to be able to perform to the best of their abilities, the Achievers expect a good work–life balance to reduce their chances of burnout.
“The Achievers’ expectations are to add value to the organisation they work for and see the tasks at work as the main priority, while workplace ethics are seen as something secondary to work and they therefore do not put much emphasis on them,” says Øvrebø.
Ethical Employees, however, value a strong ethical culture where managers are expected to set the tone in the workplace. People in this group expect to be comfortable within an organisation, and that employee behaviour is regulated. This leads to expectations that unethical behaviour in the workplace is punished in a fair and consistent manner across the organisation, and that there is an ethical leadership strategy that ensures the organisation follows through with set business practices in a consistent manner.
“It is important to the Ethical Employee that there’s a culture that is open to whistleblowing and a routine practice of reporting unethical behaviour; where all reports are taken seriously and acted upon accordingly,” says Øvrebø.
The final subgroup, the Public Conservationists, are seen as having an entirely new set of prioritised values and are likely to be found working in the NGO or public sector, where they are driven by an intrinsic motivation.
“This means Public Conservationists are caring people with a passion for their work, and because of their view of work as a holistic part of their lives they do not put any importance on work–life balance,” says Øvrebø.
“They instead place great value on transparency and the environmental footprint, but their main focus is that the work they do and the organisation they work for does something good for society. If the work does not fulfil these expectations, they do not see a point in doing work that is not considered useful.”
According to Øvrebø, Public Conservationists draw strong connections between business, society, the environment and the wider world, and expect organisations and people to take their share of the environmental and public responsibility.
People in this group also expect to be working under a CEO with strong integrity, and instead of focusing on ethics within the workplace, the key ethics valued by the Public Conservationist focus on the organisation’s external impact.
“This research aims to provide important insights about the people we all work with on an everyday basis, and I think goes some way to addressing the millennial stereotype,” says Øvrebø.
“It also highlights the benefits of having employees from all three groups, and shows what these future leaders can add to a team to ensure a competitive and sustainable future.”